Coventry / Helen Humphreys
Toronto : HarperCollins Canada, c2008.
And now for a much delayed review of a book I read and was fortunate enough to hear the author read from last month. I received Coventry from HarperCollins in anticipation of hearing Helen Humphreys speak at a library workshop, and it was a much appreciated event. She is a fascinating speaker, straightforward and dryly amusing.
Like much of her earlier work, Coventry is a small, poetic novel that somehow contains much more than is first apparent. The story occurs over one night, the night in WWII that the town of Coventry was bombed almost to oblivion. There are 3 primary characters: Harriet Marsh, James (Jeremy) Fisher, and his mother Maeve. Harriet meets Jeremy when they are both on firewatch duty on the roof of Coventry Cathedral. As the bombing begins, and they realize the entire town is burning, they travel together as if undergoing a mythic ordeal, trying to return to Jeremy's home to see if it is still standing and whether Maeve is there and safe. They struggle through a nightmarish landscape, full of explosions, fire, danger, noise and chaos. In her reading, Humphreys mentioned how difficult she found the writing of this book; she had two characters who had to spend the entire novel together, but the noise and darkness of the night bombing made any kind of realistic conversation problematic. To her credit, she seems in the end to have neatly solved that problem, as I found the action of the story very natural and very moving. Here are Harriet and Jeremy walking through the streets shortly after they leave the cathedral together:
Harriet and Jeremy see the horses on High Street. Three horses running down the road, their manes lifting through the smoke, their hooves knocking on the cobblestones. Three night horses. The horses run right past them, close enough to touch. They are running away from the fire and the bombing, running toward the open fan of countryside outside of the city.
Above them, Harriet can hear the bombers. The planes come in waves and sound exactly like that, like the pulse and pound of sea on the sand, a muffled, rhythmic heaviness. She doesn't look up, even though, on such a clear night she might be able to make out the shape of the planes. But they have been warned not to watch bombing raids, not to gaze upwards, as the pilots might see the reflection of their faces in the light of the fires and use their faces as guides to drop their bombs.
Throughout the novel, the images were so consistently strong that I felt deafened by the constant barrage of bombing, I felt choked with smoke and uncertain of the outcome of the night. Harriet and Maeve do eventually meet up, and realize that they had also met years before, the day after Harriet's husband enlisted in WWI. The events of the night in Coventry link them for the rest of their lives, with the closing pages of the story consisting of their continued communication, told from the vantage point of age. Both the structure of the book and the language are exquisite, a wonderful example of brilliant storytelling.
It is an extremely strong storyline, told so well I feel unqualified to pass any judgement. Still, there was only one element of the relationship building between Harriet and Jeremy which I didn't like; it came near the end and though I can see how it fits in and actually makes the conclusion more plausible, I still felt it wasn't absolutely necessary. That one reservation is the only reason I am not a complete raving maniac about this book; otherwise I was absolutely astonished and enthralled by the story. If you haven't read Humphreys before you are missing a wonderful author. If you can find any of her books pick one up; her sparse style is captivating and the emotion she can capture in a few words is worth experiencing.